Belatedly compiling my word prompt stories from February, March, and April. And a couple thoughts about what inspired them.
A shadow lingers over Marwood House.
For the people of Carindlee, it was normally a case of out of sight, out of mind. But every year, when the tourists come to enjoy themselves by the lake, it was a certainty that someone would ask.
It would be an innocent enough question, inspired by the sight of the gothic manor house atop the cliffs at the western edge of the lake. And every time, there would be a second of hesitation, a choice of whether or not to answer.
Not that the answers people did give were consistent. They all knew the basics, how some Hollywood star had bought the place during the sixties, used it to host wild, uninhibited parties. Then the details would become more nebulous, more exaggerated.
And people being people, they did love to gossip; especially to those who were unlikely to take them to task for it. The tales ranged from orgies involving coked-out starlets to animals being sacrificed in bizarre satanic rituals.
As for the owner, some said that he had disappeared after a mysterious death, some said the death was his. One particularly macabre version had him killing himself by hanging from the trellis of rose vines that climbed one wall.
For the majority of questioners, it was a nugatory conversation, a moment’s idle curiosity to be indulged and then forgotten. But every so often, someone would get it into their head to go and investigate the house.
The people that made that decision likewise had a variety of outcomes. Some would find the carefully disguised fences, decide it wasn’t worth the effort, and wander back to town. Some would persist and get onto the grounds.
They often returned with tales of an oppressive, eerie atmosphere; sudden inexplicable noises, even though there was no other indication of the place being actively inhabited. Others simply refused to talk about it, no matter how much they were pressed.
The alarm blared without warning, echoing throughout the station. Xi Lianjie bolted upright from the chair he had been dozing in & slapped the button to bring the holographic display into life. The view from the exterior cameras captured the sight of the sunrise.
Morning was creeping its way over the eastern hemisphere of Epsilon-4TU, the system’s primary sun edging from behind the planet. Xi frowned. There was a dark spot against the dawn, something between the star and the station. One that was getting incrementally larger.
Xi enhanced the image, the spot gradually becoming a blackened rock, stark against the face of the sun. “Analysis?” He watched with a sinking feeling as the display began calculating first the dimensions of the asteroid, then extrapolating its mass.
Even though he knew, he had to ask. “Course?” The hologram shifted into a map of the immediate system area. Xi watched a red line spring out from the rock, tracing a graceful curve straight through the representation of the station & swore. “Language.” A voice chided.
Any guilty feeling Xi might have had at the rebuke evaporated when Ekaterin swore as she saw the holographic display for herself. “I was going to complain about being woken.” She said ruefully. “But given the circumstances better now than never waking up at all.”
The storm swept in from the east, coming down from the mountains and driving a blinding curtain of rain before it. Within minutes, the miasma had enveloped them and they were soaked right through to the skin.
“Helluva thing,” Kort muttered, hunching in his saddle and wiping his face with his free hand as he glanced up. With the clouds as thick and dark as they was, it was well nigh impossible to tell how far off night was.
He tied his duster tighter about himself. He both loved and hated the rain. Times were, he could pretend it was washing him down, clean of all the mistakes and sins of the past. But there was still the old wound to his shoulder, the pain to give lie to such pretense.
“We’re gonna catch our damn deaths, we don’t get outta this,” Spencer said, voice loud enough to carry over the tumult. “An’ we sure as hell ain’t gonna make it to Whiskey Springs. We’re gonna have to find someplace to camp, wait this out.”
Kort’s horse lurched, throwing him forward against her neck, as one hoof slid into a shallow hole, sending up a spume of muddy water. “Yeah,” He agreed, pushing himself back upright. “First place we can find, we’ll stop.”
It took longer than either would have liked but eventually, they came to an outcropping with just enough of an overhang to act as a shelter. Pressing themselves flat against the rock, they bundled themselves into blankets, passing a bottle back & forth, and waited.
“Be a while afore this finishes up,” Spencer said, taking a long pull on the bottle. “Reckon it’ll be a problem?”
Kort accepted the bourbon. “From what I’ve heard, Clayton crossed over into Wyoming three days ago. Another night ain’t gonna make much difference.”
“‘Sides, we know where he’s gonna be. His brother had a heart attack or some such an’ Clayton’s supposed to be headin’ there to help out.”
Spencer made a noise deep in his throat. “Don’t seem right.” “There’s a lotta things ain’t right but they still gotta be done.”
“I just don’t see what good goin’ after him at his family’s place is gonna accomplish?”
Kort gave him a sidelong look. “You lend me $50?”
Spencer snorted. “You know I ain’t got that kinda money.”
Kort’s expression was a mixture of amusement and pity. “The bounty on Clayton’s $300.”
Absolutely nothing to do with me having been watching some classic Westerns (Once Upon A Time in the West, The Good, the Bad & the Ugly and Unforgiven) all weekend.
“Did you hear something?” Akhona asked. Nomuula didn’t bother to look up from her work, deft fingers plucking wires from the panel, stripping some and twisting them together. “Just you jumping at shadows again.” She said, a note of tired patience in her voice.
She connected the last pair of wires, unclipped the probe from her belt, and sent an energy pulse through her handiwork. Nothing happened. Nomuula frowned, checked the charge, increased it, and tried again. The panel slid open revealing their prize.
Akhona crowded in, peering over her shoulder and, as Nomuula turned to him, his face split into a wide smile. She could see his eyes darting about as he calculated their loot. “Fifty cases, ten doses a case, current market on Khawuta is fifteen hundred Imal a dose.”
“Even with our operating costs and getting fresh supplies; that’s close to half a million profit. Not bad at all.” Nomuula reached out and lifted one of the silver cases from the storage compartment. “Let’s get them loaded and get out of here.”
Akhona accepted the case but rather than adding it to their supply carrier, he began turning it over in his hands, fingers trailing over one side. “I think you had better look at this, Captain.” He said, pointing out a line of text embossed along its edge.
Any anger Nomuula might have felt his hesitation dissolved as she read the inscription. She took a deep breath and met Akhona’s eyes, which were filled with anxiety. “It changes nothing.” She began grabbing more cases & stacking them into the loader.
She cut him off. “I understand. It is an unexpected complication and one I would have preferred not to encounter but the truth of the matter is that this is legitimate salvage and they would have no just cause to cavil our claim to it.”
Akhona did not look convinced.
“You scanned the records before we boarded, did you not?” She continued. “How long has this shipment been missing?”
“Almost six weeks,” Akhona admitted.
“Exactly.” She resumed loading the cases. “We’re already well past their reclamation deadline. This is all ours.”
“You may be right, legally speaking,” Akhona said.
He kept going. “But they are very protective of their reputation & may not take kindly to us taking advantage of this.” He gestured to the engraving. “Anyone who buys these will know where they came from.”
Anastasia Duvall kept her flashlight trained on the ground ahead of her as she picked her way carefully across the empty lot. The ground was littered with shards of glass, crushed vials, and the occasional sparse growth of weeds sprouting up through the concrete.
As he heard her approach Duvall’s partner turned, the sudden flare of his own flashlight hitting her full in the face. “Jesus, Ray.” She said, wincing. “Watch what you’re doing, would you?” Detective First Grade Ray Krantz grunted and returned his attention to the body.
“How much trouble have we bought ourselves this time?” She asked.
“Male vic, multiple stab wounds.” He said, never one to use more words than necessary. “Tears in the shirt look clean, blade was sharp.” He played the beam over the surrounding ground. “Plenty of blood.”
Ana chewed on her lip. “Stabbing’s usually more personal, there’s a good chance he knew the killer.” She glanced around. “Doesn’t quite jibe with being killed & left out here.”
Ray looked up at her. “You’re doing it again.’
“Shut up.” She muttered. “Any idea when?”
Ray checked his watch. “What time did the rain pass on?”
Ana shrugged. “Around nine or ten, I think. Definitely after the night shift started. I got soaked coming in from the L earlier.”
“Happened sometime after that then,” Ray continued, ignoring her grumbling. “His face and the parts of his shirt not soaked in blood are dry. More than that, we’ll need the ME.”
Ana nodded, catching a glint of metal at the victim’s throat. “He still has a gold chain on, so whoever did this wasn’t interested in robbery.”
“Or else they were so freaked out by this,” Ray countered, gesturing to the stab wounds. “That they didn’t even think about it.” He shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Speaking of things not being the first time,” Ana pointed to a thin scar along the victim’s jaw. “Looks like someone’s taken a knife to him before.”
“Could be.” Ray studied his watch again. “Who knows how much longer we’ll be waiting here.” He gave Ana a questioning look. “I think I saw a gas station a block over. I’ll spring for some coffee if you’ll go get it?”
What can I say, I like detective stories. And I’ve used the duo of Anastacia and Ray before, mostly in A Year of Bodies.
The damp heat was already oppressive but, with the added burden of equipment and body armour, it became sweltering. The team had known it going in, it was one of the reasons the target had chosen to haunt the tunnels, but that did not make it any easier to bear.
The kill-team moved carefully, methodically; alert to every possible sign of danger. The smallest whisper of movement was cause enough for the five to take a defensive posture, weapons sweeping the area, ready to fire.
The team continued deeper in, stopping when they found a side passage that dead-ended a few meters off from the main tunnel. Two members were set to guard the entrance, a potential bottleneck for any approaching hostiles.
They took turns to sleep, recouping some of the energy that the muggy atmosphere had sapped away. They would take any edge that they could gain in their hunt. Failure to eliminate the threat would be a death sentence for them no matter the outcome.
The cry came from one of the sentries, followed a split second later by the sound of them opening fire. The members of the team that had been resting leapt up, action drugs flooding into their systems as they did, & began bringing their own weapons to bear.
They stopped part of the way up, taking a moment to look out over the surrounding hills. The sweep of the green, dotted with clumps of purple heather was breathtaking, giving a sense of the land’s permanence in the face of history.
The cloud cover felt close above them, wreathing the top of the mountain ahead, so dense and complete that the sky was almost entirely bleached to a washed-out white. There was still a distance to go before the summit, before they could broach that wall of mist.
Tired as they were, there was no question that they would continue. To turn back now would be to betray something fundamental within, not to mention disrespectful to the grandeur laid out before them. With a single shared glance, they continued to climb.
It was no easy going. The earlier rains had left the ground slick, and more than once their feet slid, leaving muddy scratches cut into the green earth. Still, they persevered, reaching out to each other whenever one looked in danger of falling.
Eventually, they came to the wall of mist. It became a more corporeal obstacle, the moisture from the air seeping into their clothes and further sapping their strength. It also leached the colour from the world, the green swiftly replaced with grey.
Britt and I were reminiscing about our trip to Scotland, specifically the Isle of Skye.
Sir Anthony Hunter sat alone in the conservatory, a drab figure nearly hidden amidst colourful blooms and blossoms that he cultivated. Despite the heat, his bony frame was swaddled in a thick woollen dressing grown, drawn tight about the loose wattles of his neck.
A tartan rug draped across his lap completed the ensemble. It was kept tucked neatly beneath his legs, as much to leave the workings of his chair free as to keep his lower half warm. One thin hand crept from its sleeve, joints red & swollen, reaching for a nearby table.
He knew he was taking a chance, going in before he had the benefit of darkness but even a motel this dilapidated still had enough working lights dotted around that it made no difference anyway. Parks waited until the parking lot was empty and made his move.
He moved quickly; climbing the stairs to the second level & going straight for room 22. It only took him a short time to get around the lock. Not his best ever, not quite, but certainly not far off it. With a glance to check for observers, he slipped inside the room.
Parks left the light off but he could still see the mess that coated the room. A variety of fast-food wrappers & containers were strewn about, the remnants left to lie and decay where they were. It did nothing to make the place smell any better.
Beneath the stink of spoiled food, there were ranker odors. Sweat, unwashed flesh, the ammonium of spilled bodily fluids. More than anything else, the place reeked of loneliness and desperation.
One area seemed free of the squalor that characterized the rest of the room. A single wall was taken up entirely by photographs, amateur spying from the look of them. All of the same woman in various locales; a restaurant, a mall, the shore, some suburban neighborhood.
Many of them were what Parks would have considered standard surveillance. Others were more extreme; close-ups or enlargements of certain body parts, no doubt chosen to whet some prurient appetite on the photographer’s part.
One photograph, even larger than the rest, made a centerpiece of the disturbing collage. The woman stood outside of a theatre, her arms about the neck of an unknown man, the afterglow of a passionate kiss suffusing her face.
Equal, albeit inverted, passion had gone into obliterating the face of the man opposite her. The photographer had scored the wall underneath in his desire to remove the image of the enemy, judging by the fragments of plaster visible through the shreds of photo paper.
Pulling his eyes away from the wall of pictures, Parks found what looked like the least objectionable chair in the room. Moving it to the furthest, and darkest, corner and making a conscious decision to breath only through his mouth, Parks settled down to wait.
With thanks for the prompts to:
Ken Turner of #MartialMonday, Laura Tatum & A.Z. Louise of #MuseMon, C. Beth Anderson of #YAMonday, Katelyn Buxton of #MondayFic, Lexi Miles & Chloe Quinn of @foodpartytues/#foodparty, Nicola Noble of #BookishTues, Ida Richens of #TrickyTues, Tim Savage of @1linewedlives/#1linewed, E.J. Reine of @humpdaywrite/#HumpDayWrite, John Cordial of @TalesNoir/#TalesNoir, A.B. Funkhauser of #Thurds, Katie Aguilera & T.A. Hampton of @linein140/#140Line, and Emma Cox of #FeelLines.